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How Sugru’s inventor knew her idea would stick

August 21, 2015, 6:30 PM UTC
Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of Sugru
Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of Sugru
Courtesy Dan Dennison 2015

Sugru is a humble product of humble origins. So is its creator, 36-year-old designer-inventor Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, who was born in Ireland and grew up on a farm, where replacing everyday objects simply wasn’t feasible.

A self-setting Play-Doh-like putty and sticks to any material (including aluminum, glass, wood, and plastic), Sugru (pronounced “soo-grew”) officially launched in 2010, the same year TIME magazine ranked it 22 in the year’s top 50 inventions. (The iPad ranked just 34.) To date and across 160 countries, more than five million packs of the moldable glue have been sold. Year over year, revenue growth has doubled, surpassing $3.5 million last year. But come this fall, that sales figure will be shattered as the company expands partnerships to another 6,000 stores, such as Target(TGT), Fry’s, and Lowe’s(LOW), to go with existing customers including Michael’s(MIK) and The Container Store(TCS). That’s an impressive haul for a product designed to breathe new life into tired old wares.

Ni Dhulchaointigh first had the idea for a self-setting rubber more than a decade ago, when she was studying sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. After graduating, she toiled for another six years and 8,000 lab hours perfecting the moldable glue’s recipe. Renting a laboratory for thousands of tests over many years was so prohibitively expensive, she eventually secured a grant to pay to build her own lab and bring on chemists who helped her learn to test her own prototypes.

“I felt so strongly about it and worked so tenaciously to make the idea real because of this sense that people are getting tired of superficial and throwaway relationship with their stuff,” she says. “Talk to people 20 years ago; it was just hippies [who were interested in recycling]. Now it feels wrong to put Coke can in the wrong trashcan. Soon, it will feel wrong to put a printer in the bin because a piece of plastic fell off.”

Sugru has thousands of uses, and the company’s online community demonstrates the breadth of ideas, from custom molding the underarm cushions on a pair of crutches to repairing a fraying cable using a bit of the colorful putty. Rugged and strong, it can also be shaped to create a soft bumper for a smartphone or customize ski pole grips, as one Antarctic explorer did in 2010.iphone 5 with cable

But as Ni Dhulchaointigh labored to bring Sugru to the masses, she also developed herself as a leader, as well. “I’m not a material scientist. I had to gather skills around me: chemistry, business, marketing,” she says. For instance, initially, her biggest challenge was approaching the investment community. “At that time, I was a 25-year-old woman talking about these nutty things—repair, creativity, home improvement—in an investment climate that was all about software, apps, and biotech,” she says. “I didn’t have this sense of disrupting an industry.”

It’s worth noting that her idea was slightly ahead of its time. The recession had yet to hit, and people weren’t as conscious about repairing their belongings. And because Ni Dhulchaointigh believes her product can help fix a broken culture, not just a broken product, there was an added layer of difficulty when explaining Sugru to potential investors.

“The novelty of Sugru attracts a lot of interest, but the team needed to convert that casual curiosity into committed custom,” says Chris Thompson, a founding partner with London-based innovation consultancy Viadynamics Ltd., the firm that helped strategize how to best communicate Sugru’s massive potential in its early days. The challenge of selling the putty, they surmised, was not just making the sale but changing behavior. “Sugru has no obvious ‘killer application,’” says Thompson. “It can be used for so many things in so many different ways which, as well as being a great strength, is also a huge communication challenge.”

Ni Dhulchaointigh compares slowly building the Sugru empire to the way toy manufacturers launch a product. “They will sell huge amount [of a particular toy], in a huge spike, then go away. We think of [Sugru] more like a game, a massive bestseller like Monopoly that will sell forever.”

But the company itself has a much sharper trajectory. In five years, the Sugru team has steadily grown from a few key advisors to a staff of 45. Yet to be able to build in a steady, measured way requires not just a flow of capital, but investors committed to Sugru’s mission. “The endgame is Sugru in everyone’s kitchen drawer,” she says.

Slow growth isn’t a phrase that necessarily excites investors, but Sugru’s customers are loyal and supportive. In fact, when the company launched a fundraising campaign in May, it took only four days to surpass the £1 million pound goal on CrowdCube, a UK-based equity crowdfunding platform, and eventually rake in £3.4 million.

Infusions like that have the company now building a U.S. team, though Sugru is still made in a small factory in East London. After one attempt at outsourcing, the design team brought production back in house to keep a close eye on quality control.

Thanks to retail placement and powerful word-of-mouth marketing, Sugru has secured its place as the next superglue or duct tape. “We need new tools. Plastic is not easily reparable,” she emphasizes. And in the future, she says, “People will need versatile solutions.” With Sugru, they have one.